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Keeping ID hard, shameful, or at least awkward

A couple of days ago, a post on a Canadian newspaper’s blog gave me credit for something I didn’t do. Before I could leave a comment correcting the post, the site insisted I register. Registration there is free (in the “no cash changes hands”) sense, but it required me to supply not only my email address and name, but also my sex and age. It also permitted me to enter yet more demographic data, which I declined to do. I didn’t want to have to supply any info, but i really wanted to correct that post. It even made me confirm an email they sent to the address I registered, because, I suppose, otherwise the terrorists have won.

The experience made me worry yet again about the efforts to put individuals in control of their own identity information. That sounds like an unarguable good, since the alternative is unarguably bad: letting others have control over your identity info. But the effect of these good-intentioned efforts will be — I’m afraid — a rapid decrease in personal privacy. For, the personal ID efforts not only give us control over our information, they also make it easy for us to supply it to others. Rather than having to type in our home address yet again, these new ID schemes will enable us to furnish information simply by pressing a button.

Since just about every vendor on the Web would like to know more about you rather than less, why won’t just about every vendor ask for more information rather than less? It’s all just a button press. Of course, you can choose not to deal with vendors who ask for too much info, but most of us will compare that with the post we want to correct, the sweater we want to buy, or the vacation we hope to win, and will just press the button.

We are making it easier to supply personal information without making it harder to ask for it. That should worry us.

Since the efforts to give users control over their personal information will inevitably continue — and the who I know who are involved in this are among the greatest champions of Web openness and personal freedom — here’s a suggestion for making it harder for vendors to ask for more information than they need. Suppose we were to create some rough categories of “asks,” and give them unambiguous names. For example, we could call the ID info that does nothing but verifies that you are who you say you are when buying something the “Credit Card Authorization Swipe.” The “ask” that wants to know your name and email address could be called the “Email ID Swipe.” The one that wants to know your demographics could be the “Marketing Personalization Swipe,” etc. The aim would be to get vendors to use those names with some uniformity, so that we not only would know what we’re giving, but there might be some market pressure (or at least some shame) not to ask for the full demographic roster when someone’s just trying to correct an error in a post. These nomenclature packages could even be graded to indicate how invasive they are.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but if we’re going to make it easy to give out our personal information, we ought to be thinking about the norms, market forces, or rules that would make it harder to ask for that information.

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I’m on the road, so I may be pokey about replying. [Tags: ]

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18 Responses to “Keeping ID hard, shameful, or at least awkward”

  1. I was thinking about this sort of thing yesterday when I submitted my tax return electronically (in Canada our tax day is April 30).

    When I installed QuickTax, they wanted me to answer a survey, and provide a bunch of “optional” information when I registered the product (registration is required to get the mandatory update to be eligible to file electronically). I declined to provide all the optional information, much of which I considered a matter of none-of-your-business. After completing the return, they offered a $10 Eco-filing rebate on the software if the user would save the paper and file electronically. To qualify to receive the rebate, the stuff that was optional on installation became mandatory, giving Intuit all sorts of detailed identity and marketing information.

    Yeah, my principles on this issue were worth the 10 bucks…

  2. I agree that we get asked too much, too often by sites where the information seems not critical to the subject of our inquiry or purchase or registration.

    On some of the clearly unneeded (in my opinion) areas that they deem mandatory, I fill in nonsense numbers, such as 555-555-5555 for my phone (I hope that is not a real number!). Sometimes I abandon my purchase or inquiry.

  3. “We are making it easier to supply personal information without making it harder to ask for it.”

    If that’s true, and I think it is, then any cognitive imperfections will tend to get us consumers and inquirers into trouble. It’s exceedingly hard to compare the cost of giving away our identity information and the benefit of completing whatever transaction we’ve got our eyes on. The sweater is so immediate (so warm! and well-knit!), while the erosion of control of information about ourselves is pretty much as abstract, difficult to quantify, and just plain boring as it gets.

    That’s why I’m very sympathetic to the idea of handy standard nomenclature. It would help us see the concreteness of we’re doing and quantify the potential cost of what we’re doing. It will give the salience of what we’re doing when we spill our identity all over the intarwebs a swift kick in the pants.

  4. Mark, your story about the Intuit rebate hinging on sharing personal info is astonishing, though Intuit has a record of astonishingly bad customer relations. In some workshops that I do, I ask clients to act out the personalities of various interfaces, and this is especially useful in designing experiences that use forms.

    In this case I know exactly how I’d present my take on this: bring in some donuts, let everyone know that they’re free, but when they reach for them take the plate away and ask something personal, like blood type. I’ve never had to be that extreme before, but I’ve never worked with anyone so badly in need of a user experience intervention.

    Good for you, by the way, for not giving up the info for the $10. Shame on Intuit for such a sick way to play with people’s heads.

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